Reviewed by Meredith Wise
Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
By Paul Mariani
496 pages, $34.95
“To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”: in this line, Hopkins could have been speaking of the treatment he has received from his biographers. Two full-length lives have already been published, and both, while impeccably researched, fail to credit the reality of Hopkins’ spiritual life. Norman White’s lack of sympathy for Hopkins’ beliefs translates into a frequent distaste for Hopkins himself. Robert Martin’s friendlier tone is a relief, but he devotes too much space to the conjecture that Hopkins had a crush on Robert Bridges’ male cousin. And for both writers, Hopkins is ultimately a tragic figure who destroyed himself with needless mortifications.
Readers of Hopkins thus have reason to rejoice over Paul Mariani’s new life of their beloved poet.
In addition to being an accomplished poet and biographer of poets (Hopkins is the fifth he has treated), Mariani is a Catholic with close ties to the Jesuits through his eldest son, who is a Jesuit priest. His comprehensive account of Hopkins’ life includes the most up-to-date research (for instance, the hypothesis that Hopkins suffered from Crohn’s disease), but its most important strength is its joyful Catholic perspective. Mariani’s Hopkins is the Hopkins we meet in the journals, sermons and retreat notes–Hopkins on his own terms. The grandeur of God both sustains him and consumes him:
[T]his way of seeing into the heart of things would eventually cost him everything, for it would mean giving himself over to this new reality, deeper and more satisfying than anything he had ever felt, an unbearable lightness everywhere about us, and only the insulation of self-preoccupation keeping the self from feeling its staggering, terrifying sweetness and tenderness.
The great strength and slight weakness of Mariani’s project shows clearly in the way he approaches Hopkins’ first Long Retreat with the Jesuits. In contrast to Norman White, who relied on the testimony of a disillusioned former Jesuit, Mariani decided that he needed to make the retreat himself in order to understand how it affected Hopkins, and he recorded the experience in Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius. He found that the Exercises transformed his understanding of Hopkins, and his own life besides. Yet in the biography he spends very little time on this pivotal event. For most non-Catholics, Hopkins’ vocation is a stumbling block, and it would help to get a better picture of his first retreat and the “horror and the havoc and the glory of it.” In this light, Norman White’s biography is valuable precisely because of its vivid harshness. But it is in Mariani’s biography that Hopkins is allowed to impart wisdom instead of just exhibiting symptoms. When White shows us Hopkins advising Bridges to give alms even to the point of inconvenience, we are meant to dismiss him as inconsiderate and neurotic. In Mariani’s unadorned telling of the same episode, we are challenged by Hopkins’ words; we are Bridges, and we must weigh the precept for ourselves. This aspect of Mariani’s work is especially useful for Catholics. We are not permitted to turn Hopkins into our cheerleader: like Ignatius of Loyola or Thérèse of Lisieux, he rattles us and makes us want to change our lives. And the discovery that Mariani wants us to make from his life is this:
To realize that a tradition of Christian poetics is out there, fresh and invigorating and new, that a Sacramental poetics which might illuminate our world is not a fantasy but a real possibility, and that Hopkins did this, showed us the way, that he reinvigorated the language and–more–might reinvigorate us and our world so that we could see it as if for the first time–that is something worth pursuing.